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Sorry, Boss, I'm Too Sick to Work Today : Excuses: More than 2.1 million times a month, Americans decide they're too ill to face their jobs. Hardest hit: the federal government.

June 04, 1993|JOEL GARREAU | THE WASHINGTON POST

You awaken. You feel fragile, beat-up, sore. You cough piteously. You reach for a thermometer, praying that it will not read something wimpy, like 99.5--or worse, normal.

You lie in bed in a semiconscious delirium, wondering what will be going on at work today that is so all-fired important. Will the world really end if you don't fix its hamburgers or its copying machines? Or take a meeting? Or do lunch?

Looks like you're going to have to call in sick.

Americans make that call more than 2.1 million times a month. And more do it in the spring than in any other season.

By region, Southerners and Westerners do it the most. In terms of age, teen-agers are the most absent. The industry that takes the most sick days is--your tax dollars at work--the government, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than mining, more than construction. Almost twice as many sick days as in retail trade, where if you don't work, sometimes you don't get paid.

And for most everyone, sooner or later, it's a judgment call.

"Certain people always get the other guy's flu," Lynn Writsel of the American Psychiatric Assn. observed on a day when three of the 12 people in her department had called in sick. "If there's one flu case in your office, that individual will be the one down next. I don't know if it's poor health or opportunity. But I've recognized it over the years with lots of different individuals."

"My secretary called in sick the morning after a Georgetown basketball game," said David Dickieson, a lawyer with Silverstein and Mullens. "She said if I really needed her, she could be in by 1. But I'm a nice boss, so I didn't stick it to her."

"Those who call in sick are not necessarily sicker than the ones who do go to work," noted Jeffrey Klein, a psychiatrist in Bethesda, Md. "There are different perceptions of how sick is sick. A lot of it has to do with whether the parents held a child home or sent him or her to school."

"The worst excuse I ever heard was a manager who called in sick after two weeks' vacation, saying he had been stung by a Portuguese man-of-war--and he'd been at a freshwater lake," said Don Knight, vice president of human resources for Geico.

The excuse most treasured by Pat Southerland of Robert Half & Accountemps: "I sprained my finger sticking it in the disc drive of my computer."

The recession has done wonders to cut down on sick days, says Michael Reidy, director of surveys for the Bureau of National Affairs Inc. There is nothing like getting up in the morning to one more series of headlines saying IBM, Sears, Boeing and General Motors have laid off the equivalent of the population of Sri Lanka to motivate people to drag themselves in to work no matter how wretched they feel. And mental-health days? Remember those? Apparently few people take mental-health days during a recession. Mental health now involves having a paycheck.

Except, maybe, for teen-agers; they take twice as many "personal" days as other people.

*

The flu is the big bopper for people calling in sick. In a 100-worker office, people will call in sick with the flu 76 days a year on average, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The common cold, by contrast, doesn't take as big a toll as its reputation suggests, accounting for only 21 sick days.

The complaint about which few male bosses ask any follow-up questions--"female problems"--accounts for about five sick days a year in a shop with 100 employees. But those fools who destroy themselves skiing and playing tennis--not to mention falling off roofs--are far more likely to wind up flat on their backs than anybody with the sniffles. Sprains and strains are good for 30 sick days a year. Fractures and dislocations, 23 days.

And in the federal government, what is the agency with the highest total number of sick days, according to the Office of Personnel Management? More than the Army and Navy combined? Hint: Its motto goes something like this: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night nor sneezies nor drippy nosies stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Yes, the Postal Service, with 5,752,180 sick days, worth $702,921,000.

A spokesman who was asked whether all that snow and rain and stuff was making people sick responded: "That was never really our motto. It was on the frieze of the major downtown post office in New York. But it was the New York Central Railroad's slogan. It used to be their building."

Besides, the Postal Service, at 7.4 sick days per employee, is no worse than most of the government, he sniffed. The Agency for International Development is the worst, according to OPM, with 12.87. Never mind that in an average week in 1991, 3.4% of full-time government workers missed at least part of the week because of illness, according to the BLS. That's a third more than the 2.6% of private workers that called in.

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